Halibut trash

halibut trash

Kodiak halibut headed for the fish grinder/Erik Velsko, Facebook

Only in Alaska, which likes to claim title to the world’s “best-managed fisheries,” would halibut now retailing at prices in excess of $20 per pound be ground into fish meal to feed animals, shrimp and maybe even farmed salmon – the bane of Alaska commercial fishermen.


Photos of halibut and other, trawl-caught bottomfish headed for the grinder emerged from Kodiak this weekend as Alaska fishermen started into a fishing season where the targeted harvest of halibut by both commercial fishermen and anglers has been seriously restricted because of conservation concerns.

The commercial season opened in March with commercial fishermen in the north Gulf of Alaska restricted to 7,350,000 pounds – down from 10 million last year – and the sport charter catch slashed to 1.8 million pounds.

Most sport fishing in Alaska takes place in the north Gulf where the catch limit is now down to less than half the trawl, bycatch cap of 1,706 metric tons – 3.8 million pounds – the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal regulatory body controlled by commercial fishing interests, imposed on the trawl fishery.

The council “family” has sometimes attracted public criticism, but a Byzantine federal regulatory system has allowed it to function largely free of public pressure.

“With all the papers, people and scheduling, Council meetings can be pretty confusing to those who are new to the process,” the organization concedes on its website, but the Council has never made any real effort to make the meetings less so.

To keep the charter harvest down this year, charter anglers were banned from fishing on Wednesdays and some Tuesdays and further restricted to a seasonal catch limit of four fish. The restrictions are expected to take a significant bite out of the tourist economy in Homer and other south Kenai Peninsula communities.

The new rules come on top of a fish-and-a-half-limit previously imposed to limit anglers to one halibut of any size and one under 28 inches.

Angry anglers

The internet was lighting up over the weekend after Kodiak’s Erik Velsko posted on Facebook the photos of not only a tote full of the flatfish, but a video of the tote being unceremoniously dumped into a Trident Seafoods truck.

He added this comment:

“Anyone who cares about our natural resources right outside our door should be appalled at this. Yes, that’s a Trident truck and yes, those are baby halibut from one of their boats. It’s getting ridiculous, and it’s time to stop.”

The fish were what is called trawl “bycatch.” Federal regulations intended to remove the financial incentive for trawlers to target especially valuable fish such as halibut and salmon prevent the sale of that bycatch, but trawlers can still legally hand the fish over to processors to be ground into fish meal.

Fish meal is now big business.

The Marine Ingredients Organization in 2015 estimated “2,332,000 metric tons of fish meal can be shipped in a year from more than 30 countries in Europe, North and South America and Asia.”

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a body funded in part by the state, has been pushing for expansion of fish meal operations to dispose of both the waste of heads and organs from salmon processing and to use unmarketable fish species and bycatch.

“The pet food market is large, but secures most of its protein from terrestrial sources. The top seven pet food companies in the United States have combined revenues of $38 billion,” the Institute noted in a 2017 report. “Most of these sales come from dog and cat food. The dog treat market is estimated at $8 billion. Alaska fish heads and other fish meat products can be a marketable ingredient for pet food manufacturers.”

Were Alaska processors doing a better job of marketing their fish meal, some Americans would, no doubt, be happy to learn their pets were eating the fish the owner couldn’t afford.

The ASMI report, however, notes the slim margins on which the pet food industry operates:

“Alaska seafood is a highly marketable ingredient and processors can supply pet food manufacturers with several product forms made from waste streams: frozen/ground blocks, hydrolysates, or meals/powders. However, these products generally sell for very low prices, barely enough to cover the cost of shipping the frozen product. Raising the value of these minimally processed products by 10-20 cents/lb. or more could
convert a significant volume of Alaska seafood waste into saleable product.”

Big, big business

Seattle-based Trident Seafoods is the biggest fish business in the country. It is heavily invested in Alaska, but also has plants in Washington state, Georgia and Minnesota, along with operations in China, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.

The company made founder and chief shareholder Chunk Bundrant a billionaire.

Bundrant built his business on the back of the walleye pollock, a white-fleshed fish once considered trash in Alaska. Bundrant recognized that pollock flesh made for perfectly fine fish sticks, and the rest is history.

Trident last year inked a deal to sell those pollock fish sticks to Walmart, under the company’s “Great Value,” in-house label. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer.

Those pollock circle back to halibut in that halibut is bycatch in the efficient but indiscriminate trawl fisheries. And there are hints bycatch and fish parts ground into meal could be the pollock of the future.

“…The company invests in research and development aimed at extracting every bit of value from the fish, and it has been diversifying its markets to create better use of the byproducts, such as for fish meal and animal feed and food,” Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine reported in October 2016.

Trawlers have been accused by some of “strip-mining” the sea, but they have in some cases shown they can fish pretty clean.

The Canadians in 1997 established individual, by-catch quotas for trawlers to reward those who managed to avoid non-target species, such as halibut. Overall halibut bycatch remained capped, but trawlers that finished the season below their cap were allowed to carry it over to the next season or sell it to a trawler that had gone over the cap.

“Prior to the implementation of the halibut mortality limit in the trawl fishery, annual mortality was estimated to range from 1.2 million pounds to 2 million pounds,” NOAA said in report prepared for the NPFMC in 2011. “To achieve halibut mortality reduction in the fishery, the trawl mortality limit was set by the Department Fisheries and Oceans (Canada) at 1 million pounds.

“Since the program was implemented, annual halibut mortality in the fishery has not exceeded 500,000 pounds, and has typically been approximately 250,000. This reduction likely stems from both the individual accountability for halibut mortality and the individual accountability for groundfish catches.”

Despite Canada’s success, the U.S. has refused to follow suit.

“We’ve been avoiding doing anything,” commercial fisherman Joe Mackino, a trawling critic messaged from Kodiak on Sunday. “Current management has a perverse incentive which reward those with the worse bycatch performance.

“The reduction plant is owned by the processors and municipalities and the state get no fish tax from these discards. Imagine a business where you get your raw material for free! Delivered even.

“…The trawl fishery is destroying the halibut and crab resource. And the state is helping them by doing nothing.”












26 replies »

  1. Hmmm….maybe I need correction on what the law is. I thought halibut are classified as a prohibited species in the trawl fisheries, and as such, tows must be sorted immediately on retrieval, and prohibited species returned overboard (granted mostly dead by this point). How is these halibut made it in to a shoreside processing plant?

  2. Alaska does a pretty good job of managing fish in places under its jurisdiction. The Pollock trawl fisheries are managed primarily by federal agencies. As are the Halibut fisheries in both state and federal waters. The NPFMC, commonly referred to as the “Council” which is changed with federal management of the Pollock fishery is dominated by industry leaders. It’s efforts to reduce by catch are either not sincere or not effective. When a mid level trawl pull occurs, Halibut is but one of many non targeted species brought aboard and in many cases discarded overboard. And Halibut is only one of the protected species brought aboard as by catch. By catch limits for protected species are quite high and I am unaware where a significant trawl fishery has been prematurely completely shut down for exceeding limits. Observer coverage is supposed to be 100% on the large federally licensed trawlers. But, I have heard stories how the observe coverage is gamed and how intimidating the crew can be to an observer. Something needs to change! But it is doubtful whether the State can change much of what takes place in federal waters.

  3. You are wrong Bill they are all close enough to same I spent 10 years commercial fishing , 20 years guiding hunters . – Registered guide . Many years Trapping and a lifetime subsistence hunting / sport and substance fishing. I have seen all ends of the horse. Ever heard of shooting 2-3 animals one bullet ? That’s accidental take . Ever heard of missing and shooting wrong animal ? Yes percentages are different but only a close minded person thinks they are ethically different. Don’t fight for trawlers who stole your profits bill . Protect Alaska and it’s resources . Wake up .

    • You are entitled to your opinion but I don’t buy it for a second. I’ll grant you there are a few instances where a hunter can accidently take an unwanted animal but those are so few as to not enter into this conversation. And those takes are not usually fined like the guy who shoots the 48 inch bull thinking it was legal.
      And I’m not fighting for trawlers, either I’m just being pragmatic-there is just no way that pollack cod fishery is going to be shut down over bycatch IMO. There clearly needs to be reasonable limits to what they can take incidently and they must be adhered to also. These committees of folks determine what this take is and that is how the system works. You don’t like it then get elected to a position whereby you can make a difference. Bitching on these pages doesn’t get anyone anywhere IMO.
      Such is politics and big business has always tended to make the rules. That’s what this is. Frankly the pollack is a federal fishery and so is halibut-the State has no say in it other than the few members on fisheries policy commissions. National Marine Fisheries, North Pacific Fishery Management Council, etc. and each have their own bayliwick. The fact that Alaska has one of the world’s best fisheries overall goes towards the success of all of these management systems.

      • Bill , glad you have a strong opinion on this subject. It’s just that – an unbalanced opinion. Why don’t you stand up harder for Alaskans ? People /individuals standing up for Alaska is why we have a hard core semi successful management system. Perhaps you with all your usual numbers based research could improve it ? Why don’t you step in public service being as you are retired and have so much time . Alaska could sure use your efforts.

      • Thanks for that vote of confidence but that’s not my bag and I still don’t have the time, even though retired. Here’s something I thought interesting from Brent Paine on Runaway Net Pens thread: Through DNA analysis done by ADF&G and NMFS on tissue samples of the salmon collected by the NMFS At-sea Observer program over the past 10 years or so, we know that over 50 percent of the chum salmon taken as bycatch in the Eastern Bering Sea Pollock fishery are from hatcheries located in Japan and Russia.
        This is fascinating, to me, and its just the tip of the iceberg far out in Gulf and Bering Sea. I think young people interested in fisheries biology should find plenty of work in their fields as there is much to learn.
        On another subject, I just had a yahoo tell me on another website that he would cut AKs budget by removing all general funds from University and remove funding for K-12 students except for those legally required to attend (7-16). He did have the balls to give his own name so he is bellying up. There is no way I could deal with such constituents. Heheh!

    • “Ever heard of shooting 2-3 animals one bullet ? That’s accidental take .” That is not accidental take! That is not looking beyond your intended target, where a bullet many travel. This will garish you a citation if caught. There are many court appearances/judgement on just that example. It is exceeding your bag limit, and is not and accidental take/by-catch in the eyes of the law. By-catch is something you have little control over taking a specie. A person squeezing a trigger has all the control if and when the firearm is discharged.
      Now i will state again, the trawl fishery can do much better and reduce it’s by-catch. no doubt in my mind if i were in charge.

      • You are struggling with conceptual thought . Did you mean to take the second or third animal with the bullet ? By English language definition it is called an accident. Yep the law may give you a ticket because you accidentally exceeded bag limit . Just like trawlers accidentally take different species. The law is not saying it was purposely done . Just like trawlers don’t purposely take other specie . But there are other fish grouped with their target . They get away basically Scott free. Wake up. Use your English education. You also get a ticket for not carefully reading an f/ g manual . Lack of knowledge doesn’t deam you innocent. You need to start over and read the dictionary more carefully.

  4. You know how many gillnetters on the copper I hear crying the blues because of the king bycatch, the longlinners in the state doing the same about halibut bycatch but these are the same people that sell to Trident. You hate what there doing but you still sell your fish to them. This is not Chuck’s company anymore. They work on greed and bullying their fisherman around but everyone just keeps fishing for them. Until you stop fishing for Trident, I don’t want to hear another copper river guy bitch about the trawlers catching their kings.

  5. Bycatch policy on Alaska waters is a joke! Treated as if they’re actually doing good, by fishing Dirty and sending their bycatch fish to the food banks. A policy set up years ago.
    The US trawl fleet is an embarrassment, Canada has figured it out, but not our own fleet. They would rather kill off communities like Seward or Homer, than fish clean.
    Scene first hand what the trawl fleet can do with their so called midwater trawling.
    Now they don’t even care to hind their bycatch ways, now you can see why they moved the Observers off trawlers to the longline fleet.

  6. Sad to know this is allowed. Especially considering the restrictions on local and tourist halibut fishermen.

    And no wonder it is so uncommon to catch barn door halibut any more. Take all those fish out of the water and it is more difficult for the little ones to turn into big ones!

  7. I’ve always thought that one way to trim bycatch would be to REQUIRE trawlers to land all of it and donate it to food banks or lunch programs AT THEIR EXPENSE. I guarantee you’d see less bycatch in no time. Filling the fish hold with an unprofitable catch? That’s the only incentive… the bottom line.

    • They should be required to ice it and then it gets sold and the money goes to more observers, enforcement and or exchanging for someone not to fish those pounds and get paid a reduced price. Needless to say in this day there is no reason to kick it over the side as waste.

  8. Sure appreciate all the research mr. Medred does shining light on these important Alaska issues! Why does state treat trawlers more kindly than individual people? Are trawlers somehow immune to state laws ? Are they to far from shore ? If you are hunting brown bear and you shoot a moose without holding a tag the state considers it a major violation. Bycatch is very little different. Seems the state should at least force trawlers to accommodate,care for and sell by catch at market value but give the state the money. Otherwise it’s effectively taking a public resource and making waste of it repeatedly and premeditated.

    • The state is not really involved in this Federal fishery. Express your thoughts to your reps. to Congress.
      Not impossible, but I suspect those halibut are not cleaned, even and just ground whole along with numerous other bycatch. With no return to the catchers I imagine the quality of halibut bycatch is similar to road-kill moose (hardly similar to the $20/lb halibut sold in stores). Were those fishers allowed to keep and sell that resource, you can bet they would take better care of the product. But what’s to keep them from keying on the species then?
      It’s not an easy answer IMO.

      • By-catch in this article is different than shooting the wrong species. In that a trawler does not have complete control of what he is going to drag up. Whereas a hunter should know and is obligated to know his target is lawful to take. But there are ways to discourage draggers from taking by-catch. Some have been noted in the article. I also agree something has to be implemented. I am not a commercial fishermen, but as trapper i also have to deal with by-catch (game that in not allowed to be trapped. Such as moose,caribou,deer or out of season furbearers). Trappers have regulations that have to be followed when this occurs and we do not profit from the take of by-catch. The trapping industry has through teaching, knowledge,and technology have reduced by-catch. Good article.

      • Thx Bill . Seems the governor should do his job and protect Alaska resources. Senators rarely listen to a couple citizens statements. Allen I see bycatch as no different than shooting the wrong species . You are qoating an over used excuse. Sure it’s hard to see in the water but if you keep taking the wrong animal you either change where you trap or what you trap with . A huge indiscriminate net in the water is similar to using a machine gun or a missile to hunt with . Oops I hit 10 other species. Didn’t mean to kill those otters / Dall sheep Ect . Hah better luck next time . Nice of you to shield trawlers but it’s missed placed . If you are a pro trapper if you caught wrong animal you change your method or set normally. If it happened twice you Sure would . Right ?

      • Truth, reread what i had wrote. There is no by-catch in hunting. By law/regulation and most hunters have ethics, you select what you are going to kill. Setting traps for certain fur bearers work most of the time, but there is no guarantee my wolf snare will not catch a moose. As i had stated: “The trapping industry has through teaching, knowledge,and technology have reduced by-catch.” But to my knowledge it has not eliminated by-catch, nor will it ever due to all the factors involved in trapping fur. Nor will the trawl fishery have 0 by-catch. But as i also stated: ” But there are ways to discourage draggers from taking by-catch. Some have been noted in the article.”
        I was not defending the trawlers, but i was point out there is no lawful by-catch in hunting game, and that though knowledge, technology, and penalties the by-catch in the trawl industry could be greatly reduced, but never eliminated, like as in trapping.

      • I think you’ve hit it perfectly allen. This is on the order of “collateral damage” for wartimes, not intentional but a certain amount is tolerable (different folks will tolerate different amounts). Thus it is a political issue that involves a lot of people putting their heads together to determine what’s an acceptable number for each species.
        Remember here this is an enormous business (pollack trawl fishery) that produces a lot of money and couldn’t be stopped even if AK wanted it to. Federal issue and its not like there aren’t penalties for too much bycatch. I believe AK governor appoints a few of these NOAA folks to take care of AK issues but I’m not sure how many he controls.

      • Allen , call it what you like . By catch/ or accidental take – fishing ,hunting or trapping . It’s exactly the same . Just on a larger scale in a for profit multiple country companies.That’s why they get away with it on a massive scale . Hunters and sport fisherman can get massive penalties. How about they treat companies the same . A screw up is a screw up . Treat everyone the same . That would reduce by catch . Why protect a trawler that steals Alaska money fish time and time again -damaging the ecosystem in the process for next to no returns to Alaska or its people. Time for the governor and senators to step up and protect Alaska resources and it’s people . You said it well ,adjust the method . Reduce the damage .

      • It’s not the same Rayme. Hunting and taking bycatch is inexcusable and those fines are necessary IMO. Trapping is more like fishing but the individual trapper has an incentive to correct his ways or he goes broke with not functioning traps. He/she either corrects things or goes broke.
        Now the Trawl fisheries are not particularly affected without additional severe penalties to keep them in line IMO. Their trawl still fishes just the same just fills up quicker. We don’t allow them to sell their bycatch, for obvious reasons, and we do impose limits on them to attempt to control their bycatch numbers.
        There has to be a political push to change things in this fishery and unless their numbers of bycatch are too large there just won’t be that push-and these guys employ a lot of serious lobbyists to keep their nets in the water. In a perfect world things might be different but we live in the world we have been dealt IMO.

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